The 2020 NBA All-Star Game, the first to institute the Elam Ending in which a target score determines the winner, ended on a free throw. Sunday's 2021 All-Star Game, while lacking the hotly contested fourth quarter the 2020 version gave us, ended, shall we say, a bit more climactically, with Damian Lillard lacing a walk-off jumper from half-court to give Team LeBron a 170-150 win over Team Durant.
That, my good folks, is the latest installment in Lillard's ever-growing legend. Don't talk to me about it happening in an ultimately meaningless All-Star Game. That was epic. Lillard's reputation as a clutch-time assassin is so cemented that even Stephen Curry knew the shot was down before Dame had even picked up his dribble:
About an hour earlier, Curry and Lillard had given us one of the all-time All-Star moments when they matched each other's half-court bombs to end the first half:
Curry and Lillard ended the night with 16 combined 3-pointers, eight each on identical 50-percent clips, but the walk-off made it Lillard's night. He finished with 32 points and was robbed -- yes, robbed -- of the MVP, which went to Giannis Antetokounmpo for connecting on a perfect 16-for-16 from the field, which is to say he made a lot of uncontested dunks.
Lillard hit two freaking half-courters.
One to win the game.
It's perhaps a bit of unfortunate foreshadowing that Lillard was overlooked for All-Star MVP, as there's a pretty good shot he'll get a raw deal a few months from now in regular-season MVP voting. What he's done in leading the Blazers, without CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, to a 21-14 first-half record should have him no lower than second on anyone's board. But oh how we love Nikola Jokic's advanced stats on a Denver team with a worse record despite having a far healthier roster.
It's not a knock on Jokic. He's awesome. The Nuggets haven't been completely healthy either and they've had a tough schedule. LeBron James has been great, too. Joel Embiid is the rightful leader, even though he plays in the far thinner Eastern Conference. It's just frustrating that Lillard, though he's finally been accepted as one of the NBA's true top-shelf players, never quite seems to get his full due.
This guy does as much winning, relative to the roster he's working with, as anyone in the league, and he's the best clutch player in the world. Perhaps you could argue some of this other stuff. You can't argue the clutch part. The half-courter(s) on Sunday was yet another reminder that when the game is on the line, Lillard is in a league of his own. Even Paul George was forced to admit that the series-clinching 35-footer Lillard hit to eliminate George's Thunder in 2019 wasn't, as George initially declared, such a bad shot after all.
Paul George: "I guess I was criticized for the right reason for calling a Dame shot in the playoffs a bad shot... It's a great shot."— Farbod Esnaashari (@Farbod_E) March 8, 2021
Paul George finally admits that shot from Dame Lillard is a good shot.
It shouldn't have taken Sunday's bomb to realize there's no such thing as a bad Lillard shot, particularly in the biggest moments. Over the course of his career, Lillard has hit 29 game-tying or game-winning shots with under 20 seconds to play, the most in the league since he entered in 2012-13. So far this season, he's shooting 63 percent from the field (31-for-49), 58 percent from 3 (14-for-24) and 100 percent from the free-throw line (28-for-28) in the clutch.
And that's just the start. Dig a little deeper, and you'll find that when the Blazers are losing or tied inside the final five minutes of a game within five points, Lillard is shooting 70 percent from the field (19-for-27) and 69 percent from 3-point land (9-for-13). Go even deeper, and Lillard is 7-for-9 from the field, including 5-for-5 from beyond the arc, with four seconds or fewer on the shot clock in these clutch situations.
These are shots of desperation for pretty much anyone else, and yet it has honestly gotten to the point where if the Blazers need a big shot, you are legitimately shocked if Lillard misses. Curry calling that walk-off before Lillard even let it go is no accident. Hell, he just saw it firsthand when Lillard gut-punched his Warriors with a step-back game-winner less than a week ago.
Curry's rise to legendary status was meteoric, while Lillard's has been more steady. He somehow gets better every year. He's gone from having trouble with blitzing traps to shredding them. He's learned when and where to turn the corner and get to the rim. Lillard hasn't reached Curry's status. He's never had the proper supporting talent to win at the same kind of level, and he's not the greatest shooter ever. That's Curry.
But Lillard's range has become unmatched. Over the last season and a half, Lillard is an astounding 10-for-16 from 35-39 feet, per NBA.com. If you've never stood on an NBA court and looked at the rim from 35-39 feet, let me tell you, it's a bomb. There is no way to appreciate that distance on TV. To be hitting these shots, small sample or not, at a 62.5 percent clip is nothing short of stupid.
That's the combination that has become the foundation of Lillard's legacy: Nobody shoots from farther, and nobody shoots better with the game on the line. The man is a killer. Curry knows it. George knows it. Everyone knows it. Lillard did it again on Sunday. A half-court walk-off like it was nothing. Normal flick-of-the-wrist form. It wasn't his most meaningful shot, but it immediately becomes one of the most memorable in a career already full of unforgettable moments.